|To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
Retold by Jen Sanders, Beth Sampson,
& teachers of the Newton Public Schools
Setting: Maycomb, Alabama, 1930’s
Narrator: Jean Louise “Scout” Finch
When my brother Jem was almost 13 he broke his arm, badly. Even though it healed, we always talked about what really caused the accident. I said the Ewells, but he said Dill and Boo Radley started it. But then he said if our ancestors, the Finches had never moved to Alabama, then none of this would have happened, and the rest is history.
We’re southerners. We think it’s a big deal who your family is, where you’ve come from, and what you’re known for. Our ancestor, Simon Finch, was a stingy and religious man. He saved up all his money to buy up Finch’s Landing, and for generations that’s where our family has lived. My Aunt Alexandra still lives here now with her quiet husband. My father Atticus Finch, went to Montgomery, Alabama to study law, and his brother Jack went to Boston to study to be a doctor. My father moved back to Maycomb once he finished law school.
Maycomb was a tired, old town back in those days. People moved slowly, ambling across the town square. Days seemed long, especially on hot summer days. People didn’t hurry, because there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy, no money to buy it with, and nothing to see.
We lived on the main street, Atticus, Jem, and I. Our father played with us, read to us, and treated us fine. We had a cook too, Calpurnia. She was strict with me. She always asked me why I didn’t behave as well as Jem. But he was older anyhow. She always won our battles; my father always took her side. Our mother died of a heart attack when I was two so I didn’t remember her. Jem seemed to miss her though.
One day during the summer when I was six and Jem was nine, we were playing in our neighborhood as usual. We heard something in Miss Rachel’s garden. We found a boy sitting looking at us.
He said, “I’m Charles Baker Harris. I can read.”
“So what?” I said.
Jem wanted to get a better look at him so he said, “Why don’t you come over, Charles Baker Harris.”
“Folks call me Dill, “ he said, struggling to fit under the fence. Dill told us he was from Mississippi, but was spending the summer with his aunt Rachel. He had seen a bunch of movies, so he described them to us, and we spent the next days acting them out. He was very creative, and always had good ideas. We eventually got tired of recreating Dracula and other stories. That’s when Dill’s fascination with the Radley house began.
The Radley house had sagging shingles, and a drooping porch. The grass was too high and the paint had turned gray and dingy. Even in the long, hot summer, the doors were shut up tight. There was a rumor that it was haunted. People said “Boo” Radley went out at night and peeped in people’s windows. That he breathed on flowers and they froze instantly. They said he committed little crimes in the night but not one ever saw him.
The history of the story is that Arthur, “Boo”, got into a bad crowd in high school. They swore, fought, and got into real trouble when they locked a court officer in the outhouse (bathroom). Boo’s father was so strict that the judge let him take Boo home, and no one had seen him since. Years later, the story goes, Boo was making a scrapbook out of articles from the Maycomb Tribune when he stabbed his father with a pair of scissors, and kept right on cutting.
Mr. Radley was not a nice man. He went to town each day but never spoke to us even if we said “Good Morning, Sir.”
When he died, Calpurnia said, “There goes the meanest man God ever blew breath into.” The neighborhood thought maybe Boo would come out, but his older brother Nathan moved in and he was just as mean. Atticus didn’t like us to talk about the Radleys much, but the more we told Dill about the Radleys, the more he wanted to know. He would stand there hugging the light pole.
“Wonder what he does in there,” he would murmur. “Wonder what he looks like?”
Jem said Boo was six and a half feet tall, ate squirrels and cats, his teeth were yellow, and he drooled most of the time.
“Let’s try to make him come out,” said Dill. Dill bet Jem to go up and knock on the door. Jem thought about it for three days.
“You’re scared,” Dill said.
“Ain’t scared, just trying to be respectful,” Jem said.
Three days later, after Dill had taunted him and called him scared repeatedly, Jem finally gave in. He walked slowly to the Radley yard, threw open the gate, sped to the house, slapped it with his hand, and sprinted back to us. When we were safe on our porch, we looked back at the old, droopy house. We thought we saw a slight movement inside.
I was really looking forward to starting school. I was going into the first grade. Finally! Atticus made Jem take me to school on the first day. I think Atticus even gave him some money as a bribe to let me tag along because I heard a jingle in Jem’s pockets on the way. Jem told me that during school I wasn’t supposed to bother him. We couldn’t play together because it would embarrass him since he was in fifth grade.
My teacher’s name was Miss Caroline Fisher. She was twenty-one years old and very pretty. She had bright auburn hair, pink cheeks, and wore crimson fingernail polish. Miss Caroline was from Winston County, which is in northern Alabama. She read us a story about cats on the first day. The cats had long conversations with one another, they wore cunning little clothes and lived in a warm house beneath a kitchen stove. By the time Mrs. Cat called the drugstore for an order of chocolate malted mice the class was wriggling in their seats. They thought this story was too immature for them. My classmates and I were very mature in a way because, even though they are young, they have had to chop cotton and feed hogs since they were very little.
Miss Caroline Fisher found out that I could already read, and this upset her. She wanted to teach me to read herself, I guess, and I think it disappointed her that I already knew how. So she got made at me!! How ridiculous! She told me that my father, Atticus, should not teach me anymore because he would do it all wrong. But I told her that he didn’t teach me! So Miss Caroline said, “Let’s not let our imaginations run away with us, dear. Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage. Your father does not know how to teach.”
I guess I picked up reading from sitting in my father’s lap each night while he read the newspaper out loud and followed along underneath the words with his finger. Miss Caroline also got made at me for knowing how to write!! Calpurnia was to blame for that!! On rainy days she would have me sit and copy out a chapter of the Bible.
When lunchtime rolled around on ten first day of school, Miss Caroline noticed that Walter Cunningham had no lunch. She tried to loan him a quarter to buy lunch, but he was very embarrassed and kept saying no. The class expected ME to explain the situation to Miss Caroline, so I did. When I stood up, she asked, “What is it, Jean Louise?”
I replied, “Miss Caroline, he’s a Cunningham.”
But she didn’t understand what I meant. What I was trying to tell her was that the Cunninghams were very poor farmers, but they never took charity. They never took anything that they couldn’t pay back. And since Walter couldn’t pay Miss Caroline back, he wouldn’t take her money.
I remember one time when Atticus did some legal work for Walter Cunningham’s father, whose name is also Walter. Mr. Cunningham paid my father back not with money, but with a load of wood and a sack of hickory nuts.
Miss Caroline didn’t understand me though. She thought I was being rude and making jokes. So she told me to hold out my hand. I thought she was going to spit in my hand because in Maycomb, kids spit in each other’s hands to seal a promise. But instead she patted my hand twelve times with a ruler. All of the kids started laughing when they realized that Miss Caroline thought she was “whipping” me. Most kids were used to being REALLY whipped if they got in trouble, not patted lightly with a ruler! She sent me to the corner until the bell rang for lunch.
As I left I saw Miss Caroline bury her head in her arms because she was having a hard first day. She doesn’t understand the way we do things here in Maycomb, and she doesn’t understand how poor some of the kids are. I would have felt sorry for her if she had not been so mean to me!! She was a pretty little thing.
I was angry at Walter Cunningham for getting me into trouble with Miss Caroline. I wrestled with him and pushed his face into the ground when Jem came over. Jem tells me to stop and invites Walter over to our house for lunch. On the way to the Finch’s house we ran past the Radley house. Walter informs Jem that he almost died because he ate the pecans from their tree. The children think that Boo poisons the nuts. During lunch Walter talks with Atticus. He says he has trouble passing the first grade because he has to leave school every spring to help on the farm. While eating lunch, Walter asks for molasses and pours it all over his food. I asked him what crazy thing was he doing and Calpurnia told me to come into the kitchen. I told her that he probably would have poured the molasses into his milk if I didn’t stop him. Calpurnia says that no matter whether you think you are better than another, you don’t make fun of them while they are a guest in your house. I thought to myself that I would get her and then she’d be sorry. Jem and Walter went back to school ahead of me and I told Atticus he should “pack her off”. Atticus says that he will do no such thing and that Calpurnia is valuable to the family and that I should listen to what Cal says.
I returned to school for the afternoon session. During this part of the day. I watched while Miss Caroline tried to control a student named Burris Ewell. Miss Caroline’s attention goes to Burris because she notices something crawling in his hair. It’s lice! Burris is unaffected by the commotion he had caused. Miss Caroline naively tells Burris to go home and wash his hair. Burris informs her that he only comes the first day anyway just to please the truancy lady. After the first day he never comes back; none of the Ewells still in school come but for the first day. Burris has been in the first grade for three years now. Miss Caroline learns that Burris’s mother is dead and his father is a low-class white man who drinks a lot. Miss Caroline tries to get Burris to sit back down, but he gets angry and mean. Little Chuck, another student in the class, helps Miss Caroline and tells Burris to go home menacingly. Burris made Miss Caroline cry and after Burris left, we all tried to comfort her.
After school let out, we went home and made sure to run past the Radley’s house. We met Atticus when he got home from work. Calpurnia had made a special treat of mine for dinner and I was sure that Calpurnia had seen her errors in the way she treated me at lunch.
That night, Atticus asked me if I was ready to read with him. I got real uncomfortable. Atticus noticed that something was bothering me so he asked me what was wrong. I told him all that had happened in the day and even the part about Miss Caroline saying that he had taught me all wrong so we couldn’t read together anymore. I told Atticus that I didn’t want to go to school anymore. Atticus tries to interpret some of the confusing episodes of the day for me. He says, “If you can learn a simple trick Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view -- … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (p. 30). I learned that the Cuninghams are poor but honest people and that Miss Caroline made some honest mistakes. We couldn’t expect her to have learned all the ways of Maycomb in one day.
On the conversation of the Ewells, Atticus says that the law bends a little for them. The people allow them certain privileges by being a Ewell and living in their situation. They don’t have to go to school and Mr. Bob Ewell, the father, is permitted to hunt and trap animals out of season. He is allowed to do this because he spends all of his welfare money on whiskey and his children to hungry. The food that he hunts goes to feeding his children so nobody would say that he can’t hunt even if it is out of season. Atticus says that you can’t punish the children for the father’s faults.
Atticus and I made a compromise. If I agreed to go to school, then we could continue reading together each night, but we better keep it a secret.
My school year went on pretty uneventfully. One day while walking home alone, I ran past the Radley’s house as I normally do. This time, however, something caught my eye. I took a deep breath, turned around, and went back.
Next to the Radley house there were two tall oak trees. One of the trees had a knot-hole and there was some shiny tinfoil sticking out of it. I stuck my hand in the knot-hole and pulled out two pieces of chewing gum (Wrigley’s Double-Mint). I quickly snatched it up and ran home, even though I wanted to cram it into my mouth. Once I got to the porch, I inspected my find. I sniffed and licked it, and when I didn’t die, I put the gum in my mouth.
Jem came home and wondered where I got the gum. I finally told him that I found it in the Radley’s tree. Jem yells, “Spit it out right now! Don’t you know you’re not supposed to even touch the trees over there? You’ll get killed if you do!” and I obeyed.
Summer was on the way, which was our favorite season. It also meant that Dill was on the way. On the last day of school, we were let out early. As Jem and I walked past the Radley’s oak trees, I saw shiny tinfoil again in the knot-hole. We both ran over, grabbed the prize and hurried home to examine it. It was a small jewelry box covered in tinfoil wrappers. Inside the box were two Indian-head pennies that were really old. Since this was pretty special, I began to think that this knot-hole might be someone’s special hiding place. We tried to think of who walked that way and who might be using this as their hiding spot. We didn’t know if we should keep them or put them back. Jem suggested that they keep them until school starts and then ask everyone if they’re theirs. I noticed Jem looking back at the Radley’s house for a long time and seemed to be real thoughtful.
Dill Finally arrives! Miss Rachel picks him up and we meet up with him a little later. Dill suggests picking up where they left off play-acting, but I’m tired of those. I thought it would be fun to roll in the tire. “I’m first!” I announced. I folded myself in the tire and Jem pushed me hard down the sidewalk. I was getting dizzy and couldn’t get it to stop because it was going so fast. I hear Jem yelling behind me. All of a sudden I bumped into something and stopped. I lay on the cement for a while and hear Jem’s voice: “Scout, get away from there, come on!” I opened my eyes and realized I was at the front of the Radley’s steps. Jem came to get me and panicked. We both scurried out of there without the tire. Jem and I argued about who should go back and get the tire. Jem scowled and went back for it. He told me I was acting like a girl and there was nothing to it.
Calpurnia called us in for some lemonade. As we enjoyed our lemonade, Jem decided that we should play Boo Radley. What he meant was that we would play act using the Radleys as our characters. All throughout the summer we perfected our act. We added dialogue and made it long. One day when we were rehearsing one act, Atticus watched us. He told us that he hoped we were not pay acting about the Radleys, Jem and I argued over whether or not we should continue acting this out since Atticus told us not to.
Atticus’s seeing us do this play-acting was the first reason I wanted to stop doing this. The second reason had to do with what happened earlier that day. After I rolled into the Radley’s yard, I heard not only Jem’s voice yelling but also another sound. It was a soft sound. Someone inside of the house was laughing.
So, I thought we should stop playing “Boo Radley” because Atticus had warned us not to. Jem said we should just change the names of the characters and then nobody would know! Dill agreed. Dill, by the way, was being annoying. He had asked me earlier in the summer to marry him, then he promptly forgot about it. He had said I was the only girl he would ever love, but then he ignored me. I beat him up twice but it did no good, he kept becoming better friends with Jem.
Since Dill and Jem were becoming so close, I was beginning to feel left out. So I spent some time becoming friendly with Miss Maudie Atkinson. Miss Maudie was a nice lady who lived across the street. She had always let us play in her yard, but we had never really been close to her. Now Maudie hated being indoors. She thought that time spent indoors was time wasted. She was a widow who worked in her garden wearing an old straw hat and men’s overalls. She was pretty cool. She was honest, treated us with respect, and didn’t like gossip.
One day I noticed that Miss Maudie had two minute gold prongs clipped to her eyeteeth. When I admired them and hoped I would have some eventually, she said, “Look here.” With a click of her tongue she thrust out her dentures. Cool! I think that was her way of letting me know that she really considered me a friend!
Miss Maudie made the best cakes in the neighborhood. She would yell, “Jem Finch, Scout Finch, Charles Baker Harris, come here!” That meant that she had baked some small cakes for us, and we went running!
One evening I asked, “Miss Maudie, do you think Boo Radley’s still alive?”
“His name’s Arthur and he’s alive,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“What a morbid question. I know he’s alive, Jean Louise, because I haven’t seen anyone carry out a body!”
“Jem said that maybe he died and they stuffed him up in the chimney”, I added.
Miss Maudie said, “Tsk. Tsk. Jem gets more like Jack Finch every day. They’re both such wise-guys!”
Jack Finch was my uncle, Atticus’s brother, and Miss Maudie had known him since they were children. Miss Maudie had grown up near Finch’s Landing and used to play with Jack. Uncle Jack visited our house every Christmas, and every Christmas he yelled across the street for Miss Maudie to come marry him. He was such a jokester! Miss Maudie would call back, “Call a little louder, Jack Finch, and they’ll hear you at the post office!”
Miss Maudie continued her answer about Boo Radley. “Arthur Radley just stays in the house, that’s all. Wouldn’t you stay in the house if you didn’t want to come out?”
“Yessum, but I’d wanta come out. Why doesn’t he?”
Miss Maudie explained that Mr. Radley was a “foot-washing Baptist” which means that he believes anything that’s a pleasure is a sin. She said that some of those Baptists even passed by her house once and told her that she and her flowers were going to hell. They thought that Miss Maudie spent too much time outdoors and not enough time inside the house reading the Bible.
Miss Maudie said that these people were taking the Bible too literally. She said, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of – oh, of someone like your father.” She also said that “there are just some kind of men who—who’re so busy worrying about the next world that they’ve never learned to enjoy this one. Like the Radleysv.”
Miss Maudie said that all the stories about Boo were gossip – from people like Stephanie Crawford, who was always in everybody’s business. She said that she remembered Arthur as a really nice boy.
The next day I caught Jem and Dill planning something. They finally told me what it was. They were going to try to get a note to Boo Radley!! They were going to put the note on the end of a fishing pole and stick it through the shutters. If anyone came along the street, Dill would ring the bell to warn Jem. Dill explained what the note said, “We’re askin’ him real politely to come out sometimes, and tell us what he does in there – we said we wouldn’t hurt him and we’d buy him an ice cream.” I told Dill that he and jem were crazy and that Boo would kill us!
I was watching Jem try to get the note in the window, when all of a sudden we heard Dill ringing his bell! I thought I would turn around to see Boo Radley with bloody fangs; instead, I saw Dill ringing the bell with all his might in Atticus’s face. Uh, oh!
When Atticus found out what we were trying to do, he told Jem to stop tormenting Arthur Radley. He continued on, saying that what Arthur did was his own business, not ours. If he wanted to come out, he would, and if he didn’t, he had a right to stay inside without inquisitive children harassing him. He ended by saying that he did not want to see us playing the asinine game he had seen us playing or make fun of anybody on this street or in this town!!
Jem said, “We weren’t making fun of him, we were just…”
“So that WAS what you were doing, wasn’t it? You were acting out the Radley’s life story as I suspected!” said Atticus accusingly.
Jem got flustered and realized that Atticus had tricked him into admitting that the “game” they had been playing was really us acting out the gossip we had heard about the Radley family. When Atticus said, “You want to be a lawyer, don’t you,” Jem realized that Atticus had used the oldest lawyer’s trick on him! Atticus had pretended he knew we were playing Boo Radley, when really he only suspected it, and then Jem confessed without realizing!
On Dill’s last night with us that summer, before he went back to Mississippi to start school, Dill noticed Mr. Avery on his front porch. Dill said, “Golly, looka yonder.” At first we saw nothing, but then we saw an arc of water falling from the leaves and splashing into the yellow circle of the street light ten feet away. Dill said, “Mrs. Avery must drink a gallon a day!” So I realized that Mr. Avery was peeing off his porch!! And then Dill and Jem argued over which one of them could pee further, and of course I felt left out again being a girl and all.
Later that night Dill and Jem said they were going to peep in the Radley’s window to see if they could get a look at Boo. They said that if I didn’t want to go with them I could go straight home and keep my mouth shut about it. I said, “Jem, don’t…”
Jem said, “Scout, I’m telling you for the last time, shut your trap or go home – I declare to the Lord you’re gettin’ more like a girl every day!” So, I shut up and joined them. We snuck under a barbed wire fence and through a creaky gate into the Radley’s yard. We had to be very quiet, and I was so nervous! We gave Dill a boost up to look in the window, but he didn’t see anything. So we went around back and Jem crept across the porch and peeked in a window. That was when I noticed the shadow. It was the shadow of a man with a hat on, and it was moving towards Jem! The moonlight was bright enough to make shadows that night. Dill noticed it too, and then Jem. We were petrified!! The shadow stopped about a foot beyond Jem. Its arm came out from its side, dropped, and was still. Then it turned and moved back across Jem, walked along the porch and off the side of the house, returning as it had come.
We all made a run for it! We ran to the gate, and as we ran through the collards, I tripped. Then I heard the roar of a shotgun! We all scurried toward the barbed wire fence, but Jem got caught in it as he tried to go under. His pants were caught and he couldn’t get them free, so he kicked his pants off and started running in his underwear!
After resting for a minute, we realized that because of the shotgun noise, the whole neighborhood was standing around in the Radley’s front yard to see what was going on. We realized that we had better show up or else people might start to realize that it was US sneaking around in their yard! When we got there we saw Mr. Nathan Radley (Boo’s older brother ) standing with a shotgun by his side. Atticus was there, and Miss Maudie, Miss Stephanie Crawford, Miss Rachel (Dill’s aunt), and Mr. Avery.
“What happened,” asked Jem, as if he didn’t know.
Miss Maudie replied, “Mrs. Radley says he shot at a Negro in his collard patch.”
“Did he hit him?”
“No,” said Miss Stephanie. “Shot in the air. Scared him pale, though. Says if anybody sees a white n****r around, that’s the one. Says he’s got another bullet waitin’ for the next sound he ears in that patch, an’ next time he won’t aim high, be it dog, n****r, or – Jem Finch!?” Miss Stephanie had just noticed Jem standing there without any pants on!
“Yes, Ma’am?” asked Jem.
Atticus spoke. “Where’re your pants, son?”
Dill spoke up quickly. He thought of a good excuse so nobody would suspect that it was really US in the Radley’s yard. He told everyone that he had won Jem’s pants from him in a game of strip poker. Jem and I relaxed, thinking this was a good excuse.
But Miss Rachel, Dill’s aunt, was very upset. She didn’t think we should be playing poker!! Gambling was a bad thing!! But we said we were only betting with matches, not with real money. So they calmed down a little. Sure, matches were dangerous, but gambling was really dangerous!! Kids shouldn’t be gambling! It is kind of ironic that they’re more concerned about us playing with cards than about us playing with matches!!
In the middle of the night, Jem had to sneak out to go back and get his pants, which were still stuck in the Radley’s fence. If he didn’t get the pants back, Atticus would know that Dill’s strip poker excuse wasn’t true. He didn’t want Atticus to find out what he had done because he knew Atticus would be very disappointed in him. Jem said we shouldn’t have gone to the Radley place like that. It was wrong. I was scared to let Jem go back there alone in the middle of the night, but he went anyway. After a while, he came back and crept into bed. Thank goodness!
I left Jem alone when he got back from the Radley’s. I tried to do as Atticus taught me and walk around in Jem’s skin. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to go back to the Radley’s in the middle of the night. I would have been terrified so I let Jem alone.
I started school again: the 2nd grade. It was just as bad as the first grade. I was still not allowed to read, but one good thing was that I stayed as late as Jem and we walked home together. On our way home one afternoon, Jem told me what happened that night.
“When I went back for my breeches – they were all in a tangle when I was getting’ out of ‘em, I couldn’t get them loose. When I went back-“ Jem took a deep breath. “When I went back, they were folded across the fence… like they were expectin’ me.”
“And something else – “Jem’s voice was flat. “Show you when we get home. They’d been sewed up. Not like a lady sewed ‘em, like somethin’ I’d try to do. All crooked. It’s almost like –“
“—somebody knew you were comin’ back for ‘em.”
Jem shuddered. “Like somebody was readin’ my mind… like somebody could tell what I was gonna do. Can’t anybody tell what I’m gonna do lest they live in the house with you, and even I can’t tell sometimes.”
We kept walking and noticed in the knot-hole of the tree that there was a ball of gray twine. I didn’t think we should take it ‘cuz it’s probably someone’s hiding place. Jem and I decided to leave it there for a few days and if it was still there then we’d take it. The next day it was still there so we considered anything else we found there was ours to take from then on.
Second grade was not great. Jem told me that you don’t learn anything of value until 6th grade which is what he was in. He was learning about Egyptians and thought they were the smartest since they invented all kinds of great things.
One day in October we were walking by the tree in the Radley’s yard and noticed something white in the knot-hole. I pulled out two small images carved in soap. One was the figure of a boy and the other was in a crude dress. Jem told me that he had never seen anything as good as these before. As I looked closer, the boy figure was wearing shorts and this hair fell to his eyebrows. I gazed up at Jem and noticed his hair parted down to his eyebrows too. Jem looked from the girl-doll to me. The goril-doll wore bangs. So did I.
“These are us,” he said.
“Who did ‘em, you reckon?”
“Who do we know around here who whittles?” he asked.
“Mrs. Avery just does like this. I mean carves.”
We took the figures home and Jem put them in his trunk. We didn’t’ know who could have done these carvings.
A week or so later we found a whole package of chewing gum in the knot-hole, which we enjoyed. The following week we found a tarnished medal. We showed it to Atticus and he said it was a spelling medal, that before we were born the Maycomb County schools had spelling contests and awarded medals to the winners. Atticus told us that someone must have lost it but he didn’t remember anybody who had ever won one.
The biggest treasure we found in the knot-hole came four days later. We found a pocket watch that wouldn’t run, on a chain with an aluminum knife. Atticus thought it would probably be worth ten dollars.
Jem thought it would be a good idea if we wrote a letter to whoever’s leaving these things. I thought that would be a nice idea to thank ‘em.
“I don’t get it, I just don’t get it – I don’t know why, Scout…” He looked toward the living room. “I’ve gotta good mind to tell Atticus – no, I reckon not.”
“He had been on the verge of telling me something all evening; his fact would brighten and he would lean toward me, then he would change his mind. He changed it again.
The next morning we took our letter to the knot-hole and were shocked to see it filled with cement.
“Don’t you cry, now, Scout…don’t cry now, don’t worry –“ he muttered at me all the way to school.
The next day we finally saw Mr. Radley.
“Hidy do, Mr. Nathan,“ he said.
“Morning Jem, Scout,” said Mr. Radley, as he went by.
“Mr. Radley,” said Jem.
Mr. Radley turned around.
“Mr. Radley, ah – did you put cement in that hole in that tree down yonder?”
“Yes,” he said. “I filled it up.”
“Why’d you do it, sir?”
“Tree’s dying. You plug ‘em with cement when they’re sick. You ought to know that, Jem.”
We went on to school not saying a thing. After school we ran into Atticus and Jem asked him, “Atticus, look down yonder at that tree please, sir.”
“What tree, son?”
“The one on the corner of the Radley lot comin’ from school.”
“Is that tree dyin’?”
“Why no, son, I don’t think so. Look at the leaves, they’re all green and full, no brown patches anywhere—”
“It ain’t even sick?”
“That tree’s as healthy as you are, Jem. Why?”
“Mr. Nathan Radley said it was dyin’.”
“Well maybe it is. I’m sure Mr. Radley knows more about his trees that we do.”
Atticus left us then and eventually I told Jem to come on inside. He told me he would after a while.
He stood there until nightfall and I noticed when he came in he had been crying, but I thought it odd that I had not heard him.
It was one of the coldest winters Maycomb County had seen in awhile. It as also the winter that Mrs. Radley died. No one really noticed because she was rarely seen. Jem and I thought that Boo had finally gotten her.
The next morning I woke up with a fright. I screamed and Atticus came running from the bathroom.
“The world’s endin’, Atticus! Please do something—!” I dragged him to the window and pointed.
“No it’s not,” he said. “It’s snowing.”
The phone rang and Eula May, the telephone operator, called and said there would be no school. Jem and I ran to the backyard and it was covered with a feeble layer of soggy snow. We decided to make a snowman. Atticus didn’t think we’d have enough snow to make a snowball.
Miss Maudie yelled over to be careful with her flowers. She was not happy about the snow and was worried about the snow and freeze ruining her azaleas. We asked her if we could borrow some of her snow for our snowman. Jem filled five laundry baskets with earth and two with snow.
“Don’t you think this is kind of a mess?” I asked.
“Looks messy now, but it won’t later,” he said.
Jem scooped up an armful of dirt and patted it into a round shape for the torso.
“Jem, I ain’t ever heard of a n****r snowman,” I said.
“He won’t be black long,” he grunted.
We couldnt’ wait for Atticus to come home and see our creation. Atticus complimented Jem and thought whatever he ended up being in life, he’d never run out of ideas. Atticus told us we needed to disguise our snowman by putting an apron and broom since it looked too much like Mr. Avery.
It was one of the coldest nights in Maycomb’s history. I went to bed and minutes later, it seemed, I was awakened. “Is it morning already?”
“Baby, get up.”
Atticus was holding out my bathrobe and coat. “Put your robe on first,” he said.
We went to the front door and Miss Maudie’s house was on fire. Atticus told us to go down and stand in front of the Radley’s house. All the men were trying to help by carrying out her furniture and the fire truck was having difficulty with it being cold and all. Mr. Avery got wedged in the window trying to get out of the house and we were scared for him. He finally got free.
I became aware that I was slowly freezing. Jem tried to keep me warm but I was still cold.
It was dawn before the men began to leave. Miss Maudie’s house was destroyed so she would be staying with Miss Stephanie for the time being.
Atticus looked over at me with curiosity and then sternness. “I thought I told you and Jem to stay put,” he said.
“Why, we did. We stayed –“
“Then whose blanket is that?”
“Yes, Ma’am, blanket. It isn’t ours.”
I saw that I was clutching a brown woolen blanket and was just as bewildered as Atticus. We hadn’t moved an inch and Jem didn’t know how it got there too. Atticus grinned and said, “look like all of Maycomb was out tonight, in one way or another…”
Jem seemed to have lost his mind. He started telling Atticus all of our secrets. About the hiding place, Mrs. Radley covering the knot-hole with cement, pants and all.
Atticus told him to slow down and that it is probably a good idea that we keep the blanket to ourselves. “Someday, maybe, Scout can thank him for covering her up.”
“Thank who?” I asked.
“Boo Radley. You were so busy looking at the fire you didn’t know it when he put the blanket around you.”
I got all nervous and almost threw up with the thought.
Miss Maudie had a positive outlook on what happened to her house. She was actually happy now because she would have more room for her flowers now that she can build a smaller house. The only thing she was worried about was all the danger and commotion it caused. Miss Maudie continued working on her garden and yard.
I was ready to punch Cecil Jacobs in the face. He had announced in the schoolyard the day before the Scout Finch’s daddy defended n*****s, Atticus?”
I asked Atticus, “Do you defend n*****s, Atticus?”
Atticus replied, “Of course I do. Don’t say n****r, Scout. That’s common.”
“’s what everybody at school says.”
“From now on it’ll be everybody less one –“
“Well if you don’t want me to grow up talkin’ that way, why do you send me to school?”
Atticus looked at me amused. Atticus said that he was defending a Negro by the name of Tom Robinson. He lives in the settlement beyond the town dump. He goes to Calpurnia’s church and she knows his family well. She says that they are clean living folk. There are people who say I shouldn’t defend him.
“If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, then why are you doin’ it?”
“For a number of reasons,” said Atticus. “The main one is, if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t even represent this county in legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.”
“You mean if you didn’t defend that man, Jem and me wouldn’t have to mind you any more?”
“That’s about right.”
“Because I could never ask you to mind me again. Scout simply because of the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change… it’s a good one even if it does resist learning.
“Atticus, are we going to win it?”
“Then why –“
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” Atticus said.
I tried to keep this in mind when I wanted to fight Cecil Jacobs in the schoolyard. I knew that if I did fight him, I would be letting Atticus down.
Christmas was coming and I felt mixed about it. On the good side, Uncle Jack Finch was coming and he would spend a week with us. On the bad side, we would have to see Aunt Alexandra and Francis. We went to Finch’s Landing every Christmas day. I didn’t like spending time with Francis. He was a year older than I and I avoided him.
Aunt Alexandra was Atticus’s sister and Francis was her grandson. I was sure she was swapped at birth and that my grandparents had gotten the wrong child. Uncle Jack was the baby of the family.
We were on our way to pick up Uncle Jack at the train station on Christmas Eve. He had two packages with him. I was curious about what they were. When we got home we decorated the tree until bedtime. The next morning we dived for the packages. They were from Atticus. He had Uncle Jack get them for us. We had asked for them – air rifles.
We got to Finch’s Landing. I asked Francis what he got for Christmas. “Just what I asked for,” he said. Francis had requested a pair of knee-pants, a red leather booksack, five shirts and an untied bow tie.
“That’s nice,” I lied. “Jem and me got air rifles, and Jem got a chemistry set –“
“A toy one, I reckon.”
“No, a real one.” He’s gonna make me some invisible ink and I’m gonna write to Dill in it.”
Francis was such a boring child. He told Aunt Alexandra everything he knew and Aunt Alexandra then told Atticus. She didn’t like the way I dressed in overalls and that I couldn’t possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches. Aunt Alexandra’s vision of me involved playing with small stoves, tea sets, and wearing the Add-A-Pearl necklace she gave me when I was born.
Francis really got me angry. First he talked bad about Dill and then about Atticus defending Tom Robinson. “Grandma says it’s bad enough he lets you run wild, but now he’s turned out a n****r-lover we’ll never be able to walk the streets of Maycomb again. He’s ruinin’ the family, that’s what he’s doin’.”
I got so mad at him I chased him to the kitchen that is separate from the house. He kept calling Atticus a “n****r-lover” and I had to punch him in the face. I got punished by Uncle Jack and told him I hated him. He didn’t listen to my side of the sotry. I ran to Atticus for comfort and finally told Uncle Jack my side of the story. Uncle Jack got real mad at Francis when he found out what he had said about Atticus. He was going to tell Atticus, but I begged him not to. I would prefer him to think that Francis and I fought over something else.
Later when Atticus and Jack were talking, Jack didn’t tell Atticus the specifics of his and my conversation, but he did say that he learned a lot from me today. He was also upset that Jem and I were going to have to learn about some ugly things in our lives. Atticus hoped that Jem and I would go to him to get answers about what is going to happen in the trial rather than learning it from the town.
Atticus was old and feeble: he was nearly fifty. Jem and I were disappointed that he wasn’t more like the younger fathers in Maycomb. Atticus was always too tired to play football with Jem like the other dads. He wore glasses because he was nearly blind in his left eye.
When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn’t teach us to shoot. Uncle Jack taught us and explained that Atticus wasn’t interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Later I asked Miss Maudie why Atticus said that. She said, “Your father’s right. Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens; they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
I complained to Miss Maudie that Atticus was too old to do anything. She said that he was a great lawyer and the best checker-player in town and that I should be proud of him.
One day Jem and I were walking down the street with our new air-rifles and Jem spotted something. “Whatcha looking at?” I asked.
“That old dog down yonder,” he said.
“That’s Harry Johnson’s dog who’s named Tim Johnson, ain’t it?”
The dog was acting strangely, and Jem got worried, thinking it might have rabies. He called to Cal to come out in the street to look at the dog.
When Calpurnia saw the dog, she was sure it had rabies. She called on the telephone to Atticus’s office. “Mr. Finch! This is Cal. I swear to God there’s a mad dog down the street a piece – he’s comin’ this way – it’s old Tim Johnson.” Then Cal called the operator and asked her to call Miss Rachel (Dill’s aunt) and Miss Stephanie Crawford and anyone else on the street to warn them to lock their doors and stay inside. It is very dangerous for anyone to be bitten by a dog with rabies.
Mr. Heck Tate was the sheriff of Maycomb County. He showed up with a rifle. Atticus showed up as well. The dog was pretty far down the street, but it was headed towards the Finch’s place. Atticus told Heck that he better go ahead and shoot the dog – put it out of its misery. But Heck handed the rifle to Atticus and said, “Take him, Mr. Finch.” Jem and I couldn’t believe that Heck would want our father to try to shoot!!
Atticus said, “Don’t be silly, Heck. You shoot him.”
“Mr. Finch, this is a one-shot job.”
Atticus shook his head vehemently. “Don’t just stand there, Heck! He won’t wait all day for you—“
Heck said, “For God’s sake, Mr. Finch, look where he is! If I miss, the bullet will go straight into the Radley house! I can’t shoot that well and you know it!”
Atticus replied, “I haven’t shot a gun in thirty years –“
Mr. Tate almost threw the rifle at Atticus. “I’d feel mighty comfortable if you did now,” he said.
Jem and I watched our father take the gun and walk out into the middle of the street. He walked quickly, but I felt like I was watching the whole thing in slow motion. I couldn’t understand why the sheriff would want Atticus to do the shooting.
Atticus pushed his glasses to his forehead; they slipped down, and he dropped them in the street. In the silence, I heard them crack. Atticus rubbed his eyes and chin; we saw him blink hard. With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous, Atticus’s hand yanked a ball-tipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder. The rifle cracked. Tim Johnson leaped, flopped over and crumpled on the sidewalk in a brown-and-white heap. He died instantly. Atticus had shot him right between the eyes!
Mr. Tate said, “You haven’t forgot much, Mr. Finch. You’re still a great shooter.”
Miss Maudie yelled across the street, “I saw that, One –Shot Finch!”
Jem was totally stunned! So was I. Mr. Tate saw our shock and said, “What’s the matter with you, boy, can’t you talk? Didn’t you know your daddy’s –“
Atticus interrupted, “Hush, Heck. Let’s go back to work.”
After Atticus and Mr. Tate left Miss Maudie told us that Atticus was known as Ol’ One-Shot because when he was younger, he was the best shot in all of Maycomb. We were so impressed! When I asked why he never goes hunting, Miss Maudie said, “If your father’s anything, he’s civilized in his heart. Shooting is a gift of God – a talent – oh, you have to practice to make it perfect, but shootin’s different from playing the pinao. I think maybe Atticus put down his gun when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn’t shoot till he had to, and he had to today.”
I said, “It seems like he should be proud of his talent.”
Miss Maudie relplied, “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.”
I didn’t understand all of this, and I told Jem that we sure would have something to brag about at school on Monday – now that we knew our dad was the best shooter in Maycomb. But Jem told me not to say anything at school. He seemed to think that bragging wasn’t so important anymore, that it wasn’t a very grown-up thing to do. He said, “Atticus is real old, but I wouldn’t care if he couldn’t do anything – I wouldn’t care if he couldn’t do a blessed thing. Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!” It seems Jem realized that a gentleman doesn’t brag about his talents, and doesn’t use his talents to take advantage of other people or animals.
Mrs. Dubose lived two doors down from us. She was a mean lady. She lived alone except for a Negro girl who took care of her. Mrs. Dubose was very old. She spent most of her day in bed and the rest of it in a wheelchair. There was a rumor that she kept a pistol hidden in her shawl.
Jem and I hated her. Whenever we passed her house, she would glare at us and ask us questions about what we were doing. She would say we were up to no good. She said we wouldn’t grow up to be anything good. Even if I tried to be nice and say, “Hey, Mrs. Dubose,” she would yell at me, “Don’t you say hey to me, you ugly girl! You say good afternoon, Mrs. Dubose!” She called us sassy, disrespectful mutts and that it was a disgrace that Atticus let us run wild.
When Jem complained once to Atticus about the way she treated us, he said, “Easy does it, Son. She’s an old lady and she’s ill. You just hold your head high and be a gentleman. Whatever she says to you, it’s your job not to let her make you mad.” And when Atticus passed her place, he would sweep off his hat, wave gallantly to her and say, “Good evening, Mrs. Dubose! You look like a picture this evening.” (I never heard Atticus say a picture of what though!!) It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.
One day, Jem and I were walking by her place when she asked us where we were going. She gave us a hard time and we tried to be nice. But then she started yelling, “Don’t you lie to me! Jeremy Finch, Maudie Atkinson told me you broke down her flowers this morning. She’s going to tell your father and then you’ll wish you were never born! I bet he’ll send you to reform school!” Jem knew that none of this was true and told Mrs. Dubose that he hadn’t ruined Miss Maudie’s flowers.
“Don’t you contradict me!!” Mrs. Dubose yelled. “And YOU—” she pointed an arthritic finger at me…”What are you doing in those overalls?? You should be in a dress, young lady!”
Jem pulled me along and said, “Come on, Scout. Don’t pay any attention to her, just hold your head high and be a gentleman.”
But Mrs. Dubose yelled, “Not only will you grow up to be nothing, but your father is defending a n****r! Your father is no better than the n****s and trash he works for!” Jem and I couldn’t believe that Mrs. Dubose could be so mean and so racist.
On our way by her house later in the day, Mrs. Dubose was not on the porch. Jem was overcome with anger for what she had said about Atticus, and broke the promise he had made to Atticus to hold his head high and be a gentleman. He took my baton and used it to ruin Mrs. Dubose’s camellia bush. He cut the flowers off of every bush in her yard. He was so mad!
We went home and waited nervously for Atticus. We were scared of what he would do when he found out about what Jem did. Finally Atticus showed up holding a camellia flower. “Are you responsible for this?”
“Yes sir,” Jem replied quietly.
“Why’d you do it?”
Jem said softly, “She said you lawed for n****s and trash.” Jem was obviously feeling really bad about what he had done. He had his head down.
Atticus said, “I understand that people have been giving you a hard time about the fact that I’m defending Tom Robinson, but to do something like this to a sick old lady is inexcusable. I strongly advise you to go down and have a talk with Mrs. Dubose. Come straight home afterward.”
Once Jem had gone, Atticus and I talked. He said, “Scout, when summer comes you’ll have to keep your head about far worse things because that’s when Tom Robinson’s trial will be. I know it’s not fair to you and Jem, but sometimes we have to make the best of things, and I have to defend Tom Robinson because it’s the right thing to do. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do the right thing. Even though other people might think I’m wrong for defending a black man, I know that it’s right.
When Jem came back, he told us that Mrs. Dubose wanted Jem to read out loud to her as punishment for what he had done. He had to go every afternoon and Saturdays for one month and read out loud for two hours each time. Atticus said that Jem would have to go.
So I went to Mrs. Dubose’s house with Jem. Mrs. Dubose was in bed, and for a minute I felt kind of sorry for her, until she said, “So you brought that dirty little sister of yours, did you?”
Jem began reading and Mrs. Dubose would correct him sometimes. But after a while, we noticed that she wasn’t listening. She seemed to be in a lot of pain or something and kind of unconscious. Then the alarm clock went off, Jessie her helper came in and told us that it was time for her medicine and that we could go home. We noticed that this same thing happened each day, except the alarm clock would go off later and later.
One day I asked Atticus what “N****r-lover” meant because Mrs. Dubose had called him that once. Atticus said, “Scout, n****r-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people us it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s an ugly work to use, and you or I should never say it.”
We finally finished our month of reading to Mrs. Dubose. One day a month later Atticus was called down to Mrs. Dubose’s house and he came back carrying a box. He told us that Mrs. Dubose had died. He said that she had been sick for a long time and that her “fits” (when she would seem to be in pain and go unconscious) were because she had been addicted to morphine, a pain killer. She was trying to break this addiction before she died. Most people would have just kept taking the morphine so they wouldn’t have to be in pain during the last months of their life, but she wanted to die free of an addiction. So, when she had Jem read to her, it was meant to distract her from the pain that not taking the morphine caused. She would take the morphine later and later every day, which is why we had to read later and later before the alarm went off. Atticus handed Jem the box he had brought back. In it was a beautiful camellia flower. Jem thought she had sent it to him to be mean, but really she was trying to say that she forgave him.
Atticus said, “You know, she was a great lady.”
Jem asked, “How could you call her a lady after all those terrible things she said about you?!”
“She was a lady. She had her own view about things, a lot different from mine, maybe…son, I wanted you to read to her because I wanted you to learn something from her. I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. She broke her addiction to morphine, which was a very hard thing to do. She was the bravest person I ever knew.” Jem burned the box, but he kept touching the flower petals all night.